Black Cherry – Prunus Serotina: Edible & Medicinal Uses of the Cherry Cough Drop of Wild Plants

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In Chippewa, ikwe’mic, black cherry while perhaps the least palatable of our cherries is still a bouncin’ edible and medicinal tree. I absolutely love making stuff with it too! The scent of the sawdust – yum!

Black Cherry – Prunus Serotina
Black Cherry – Prunus Serotina

Black cherry is also called rum cherry because settlers blended the fruit with rum or brandy and called the drink “cherry bounce”. You’d think from similar comments in these articles all settlers were lushes. I’m sure a few were sober.

Here in Haliburton, the black cherry is still a tree, however a little farther north it shrinks down to a shrub. It’s named for the blackish scaley bark on older trees, not after the sometimes dark color of the cherries.

Edible Uses of Black Cherry

At least 46 bird species (not sure how many are here, but likely most) eat the high fiber, high protein, and high-fat fruit. You can too, though it is tart, pitty, and smaller than expected (1/2 inch or less in diameter).

The easiest way to harvest them is to lay a tarp under the tree when ripe. Shake the branches and cherries will fall onto the tarp. Remove all leaves, stems, and pits. The cherries are best cooked or dried. They can be made into jelly (you will need to add pectin), syrup, sauce or wine.

Medicinal Uses of Black Cherry

Black cherry is primarily said to support these body systems:

  • Integumentary
  • Respiratory
Beyond the Oriole Is an Old Blackened Black Cherry Tree
Beyond the Oriole Is an Old Blackened Black Cherry Tree

Medicinal tags include Antispasmodic, Astringent, Expectorant and Pectoral. See Medicinal tag key for more information.

Common usage includes the inner bark, collected in autumn, steeped (not boiled) and used sparingly to treat a cough. Cherry bark extracts are used in some commercial cough syrups and are the origin of that original coughdrop flavoring.

Rosemary Gladstar, in Medicinal Herbs, uses black cherry bark in a cough syrup recipe. It should be very soothing:

  • 1 part chopped licorice root
  • 1 part mullein leaf
  • 1 part wild cherry bark
  • raw honey to sweeten

For every 2 oz of this herb mix, add a quart of water. Simmer the herbs and water on low until the volume is halved. Strain and then add to pot again, with up to 1 cup of honey per pint of the herby liquid. You could boil this to thicken it, but the more healthful option is to just warm until the honey has dissolved. Refrigerate in glass jars. The mixture should last several weeks. Dosage is to take 1/2 to 1 teaspoon every half hour or as needed.

Alternative Uses of “Rum Cherry”

Black cherry is wonderful for woodworking and provides a noseful of aromatic cherry scent as you work with it. The wood develops a deep and rich amber with age.

Keep an eye out for fallen branches. Seasoned branches make beautiful walking sticks.

We use the burls from the black cherry tree, mainly for buttons, in some of our bush stuff. I’m also working on a black cherry burl necklace, one small burl bead at a time.

Buffalo Hide Bags
Buffalo Hide Bags (The two on the right have black cherry burl buttons!)

Crushed leaves or bark have been used as an insecticide. I’ve used crumbled tansy similarily. But if you need a powerful insecticide, rhubarb leaves are something to look into. They have to be used with caution (for one, don’t use the spray on parts you will eat).

Growing Prunus Serotina

When Haliburton Flora was published black cherry was uncommon here due to disease and overharvesting. Going off the properties I frequent, it has been making a come back. (But don’t quote me on that!) It’s an especially lovely tree to plant along the edges of the woods. Starting in August and well into September the ripe berries will bring you tons of migrating birds to watch, especially the likes of thrushes and cedar waxwings!

Black cherry is our only tall cherry tree, but we have many shrubbier prunus spp. that wildlife love too including chokecherry, fire cherry, sand cherry and Canada plum.


Avoid wild cherry bark while pregnant or breastfeeding.

Wild cherry bark is toxic in large doses and should only be used short term (up to 2 weeks).

All parts of Prunus species except the fruits contain poisonous substances and should not be eaten.

The almond aroma of parts of the cherry tree is due to cyanogenic glycosides. The twigs, leaves and fruit pits contain these cyanogenic glycosides, which convert to hydrogen cyanide if eaten by livestock (making it fatal).

And the Usual Cautions:

1) Most medicinal herbs, if edible, are meant to be eaten in moderation, even sparingly. Some require extra preparation. Tannins are toxic if consumed in excess.

2) People can be allergic or sensitive to nearly any plant; try new herbs one at a time at your own risk. For instance, saponins commonly cause stomach upset.

3) For medicinal use, I must recommend receiving a diagnosis and working with a reputed health care provider. I generally do not post specific treatments and dosages because I think that is best between you and your health care provider, and ideally monitored.

4) Anyone pregnant, nursing, or taking prescription drugs should talk to a health care professional before adding new food items to their diet.

5) Many plants have look-a-likes, and sometimes they are poisonous.

#ads in References

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Rosemary Gladstar’s Medicinal Herbs: A Beginner’s Guide: 33 Healing Herbs to Know, Grow, and Use

The Herb Book: The Most Complete Catalog of Herbs Ever Published (Dover Cookbooks)

Field Guide to North American Edible Wild Plants (Out of Print)

Native Plants, Native Healing: Traditional Muskagee Way

The Yoga of Herbs: An Ayurvedic Guide to Herbal Medicine

Edible and Medicinal Plants of Canada

How Indians Use Wild Plants for Food, Medicine & Crafts (Native American)

An Eclectic Guide to Trees East of the Rockies

The Forager’s Harvest: A Guide to Identifying, Harvesting, and Preparing Edible Wild Plants

Forest Plants of Central Ontario

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